The New Face of Pet Care
Five years ago, three veterinarians told Tom Kirshbaum that his basset hound, Bubbles, would probably end up crippled for life. Bubbles's problem is hip dysplasia, a genetically linked condition in which the ball portion of the hip joint doesn't fit properly into the socket. Hip dysplasia can lead to arthritis and, in severe cases such as Bubbles's, to spondylosis, a form of osteoarthritis that causes a fusing of the spinal vertebrae. Conventional treatment for hip dysplasia ranges from periodic dosages of aspirin to relieve pain to a complete hip replacement.But Bubbles's owners, desperate to ease their dog's suffering, decided to try another way: Because they'd had good results themselves with alternative health care, they figured they'd give it a try on their pet. A visit to holistic veterinarian Joanne Stefanatos in Las Vegas, Nevada, led to a regimen that includes large doses of vitamin C; a special homeopathic spondylosis remedy; an antioxidant; brewer's yeast; alfalfa; coenzyme Q10; and a supplement made from mussels. The results were nothing short of miraculous, say the Kirshbaums. Before Bubbles started on the natural medications, not only did she have trouble walking, but she also had a huge hump in her back from the spinal fusion. Now, after just a few months of treatment, the hump has shrunk, her back is no longer sensitive, and eight-year-old Bubbles races around the house with the energy of a puppy.The Kirshbaums are not alone in turning to alternative therapies for their pets when more conventional approaches fail to do the trick. While natural home remedies have long been popular with pet owners, more and more veterinarians are trying everything from Chinese medicine to homeopathy to help their four-footed patients. One indicator that holistic veterinary care is becoming better accepted is the steady growth in membership at the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association, headquartered in Bel Air, Maryland."There is an increasing interest on the part of both veterinarians and their clients for this type of therapy," says the association's executive director, Carvel G. Tiekert. Mainstream medicine is still the treatment of choice for emergencies, such as when a pet is hit by a car or has a scrape with another animal. But holistic approaches are particularly useful in treating chronic and degenerative disorders such as arthritis, chronic back pain, and metabolic imbalances. And today's holistic vets offer a range of treatments, from Bach flower remedies (dilute infusions of flowers and tree buds) to applied kinesiology (a special muscle-testing technique used for diagnosis) to magnetic field therapy (in which an injured area is exposed to magnets to encourage a return of normal cell function in that area).Some of the most popular methods involve acupuncture, chiropractic, and homeopathy. The International Veterinary Acupuncture Society, the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association, and the Academy of Veterinary Homeopathy offer training programs and certification. Although the acupuncture and homeopathy courses are open only to licensed veterinarians, the veterinary chiropractic program also accepts licensed chiropractors who want to expand their practices to include animals.William Martin started practicing veterinarian acupuncture in 1986, after becoming one of the first veterinarians in his state to be certified in that ancient Chinese healing art. Although Martin claims that some vets use acupuncture for virtually any ailment, he believes that it is most useful as an adjunct to more conventional forms of therapy, especially for treating chronic conditions, such as arthritis and disc disease, that haven't responded to mainstream care. One case he cites is that of Joy, an eight-year-old Doberman who suffered from severe back problems.Veterinarians at the University of Tennessee told Joy's owner, Joanna Walker, that the dog had developed so many calcium deposits on her spine that it was only a matter of time before Joy would be so incapacitated by pain that she would have to be put down. After months of restricted activity, Joy improved somewhat. But she still had bouts of pain, and her coat had become dry and brittle. "She had a look in her eyes," Walker recalls, "that told us she was no longer the happy Dobe she had always been."When Joy's condition deteriorated further, the Walkers were referred to Martin by a friend. Martin proposed a new technique he had learned at a recent refresher course in acupuncture. It involved implanting a row of pinhead-sized gold beads along the acupuncture meridians on either side of the dog's spine--close to one hundred beads in all. (The procedure is done under a general anesthetic.)The morning Joy arrived at the clinic for the surgery she was in such pain she yelped as she got out of the car and climbed the single step to the building. But when Joy was taken home from the clinic that afternoon, she jumped into the car on her own--with no apparent pain. "I had thirty people at home for a family reunion, waiting there, not believing it was going to work at all," Walker recalls. "Joy came bounding into the room where everyone was having cocktails. She went around from person to person, begging for snacks. They thought it was a miracle."Martin has also had success using gold-bead implantation to treat hip dysplasia, spondylosis, and intervertebral disc disease. Occasionally such treatment has even had unexpected side benefits: Andy, a nine-year-old Scottish terrier who suffered from hip dysplasia and arthritis, had also been treated for severe flea-bite dermatitis most of his life. After gold beads were implanted at the acupuncture points in both of Andy's hips, not only did the lameness go away, but he also stopped chewing at his hip area, and the dermatitis cleared up. Martin now suspects that Andy's chewing was a response not to allergies, but to his chronic pain.Martin finds that the gold-bead procedure gives longer-lasting results than the more common form of acupuncture, which uses thin needles to stimulate the acupuncture points. The procedure is based on the theory that the gold provides a positive charge, offsetting any excess negative charge at the location where it is placed. It has been found that as balance is restored, calcium deposits are often reabsorbed by the body.Chiropractic is another method that is growing in popularity among pet owners. It is based on the theory that disease is caused by interference with nerve function and that through the manipulation of the spine and the joints, normal nerve function can be reestablished, allowing the body to heal itself.Veterinarian Sandra Priest, of Knoxville, Tennessee, uses chiropractic to ease a number of conditions commonly treated with drugs and surgery. Sam, a twelve-year-old miniature dachshund, was brought in to her office after having been diagnosed by another veterinarian with intervertebral disc disease in his neck. The problem, common to dachshunds, was causing severe neck pain and muscle spasms that made it difficult for Sam to move without discomfort. Several weeks of treatment with anti-inflammatory medication and muscle relaxants had not improved his condition.Priest started Sam on a course of chiropractic adjustments. With the dog standing, she began at the base of his spine in front of the hips and moved forward to his neck, checking each vertebra for proper motion and alignment, then making corrections with her thumbs as needed. Then she gently placed Sam on his side to adjust his limbs and his tail. "Animals are typically a little anxious," Priest says, "because when veterinarians come up behind them one of two things normally happens: They get either a thermometer or needle. But once they get past that, it doesn't take even the rowdiest dog long before he goes, 'eeHey, this feels pretty good.'"In addition to chiropractic adjustments, Sam received physical therapy and traction as well as regular ice packs around his shoulders and neck, and a dietary supplement high in antioxidants. At the outset the muscle spasms in Sam's neck and shoulders were so severe he could hardly move. But with therapy he was back to normal activity within four to five weeks.Veterinarian and chiropractor Kevin Haussler, who treats mostly horses and dogs in his Davis, California-based practice, finds chiropractic useful in addressing many performance-related problems, such as jumpers who refuse to jump or horses with vague, undefined lameness. Recently Haussler was asked by the University of California at Davis to examine an eighteen-year-old pleasure horse who was lame in the front legs and so sore in the shoulder areas that he couldn't lower his head to the ground. X-rays and physical examinations did not reveal the cause of the problem, and when the standard medical treatment--restricted activity and anti-inflammatory medication--proved ineffective, Haussler was called in."Initially, when I first saw him, he couldn't get his head within three feet of the ground," remembers Haussler. "After chiropractic adjustments he was able to lower his head within six inches of the ground with a lot less soreness around his shoulders." Some chiropractors, notes Leslie Collins, executive assistant for the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association, are switching to an all-animal practice after becoming certified in veterinary chiropractic.One of them is Michael Gleason, who practices in the San Francisco Bay area. "Most chiropractors I know will be asked by their patients from time to time to look at one of their pets," says Gleason. But when one of his patients' pets was referred to him by their veterinarian, it wasn't long before Gleason was poring through animal anatomy books and working closely with the vet. "It snowballed from there to where I was out of the office three days a week working with animals and in my clinic three days a week with my human patients," says Gleason.Now, some eight years later, Gleason's practice comprises 60 percent large animals, 40 percent small animals, and no human beings at all. While veterinarians who practice acupuncture and chiropractic medicine may combine their alternative therapies with more conventional veterinary methods, most homeopathic vets feel that their approach to disease and health does not mix well with conventional medicine.Richard Pitcairn, co-author of Dr. Pitcairn's Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats (Rodale, 1995), points out that the two forms of medicine act in opposite ways. In homeopathy, symptoms are interpreted not as a problem that needs to be suppressed or eliminated but as part of the body's attempt to heal itself. "Homeopathic treatment acts as a stimulus, to stimulate a healing reaction," says Pitcairn. "Allopathic treatment usually counteracts or blocks symptoms, like an anti-inflammatory medicine blocks the inflammatory process."Another major difference is that homeopathy looks at the patient holistically. "With conventional medicine there is an emphasis on the physical findings," says Pitcairn. But to a homeopath, when a patient is ill, more than just the physical body is involved: The patient is also affected mentally and emotionally. Therefore, the homeopathic veterinarian not only conducts a thorough physical exam but also spends a lot of time with the pet's owner, getting a detailed history of the animal's current behavior, previous health problems, and relationship to its environment.Part of the challenge for the homeopathic veterinarian is that standard diagnostic categories are at odds with the homeopathic model. Two different cats may be referred to a homeopath with a diagnosis of feline leukemia, for example, but it's likely that their treatments will differ, because their overall "analyses" are not the same."You should find the individual treatment for each patient," Pitcairn says. Homeopathic treatments are also holistic, focusing on the animal's general health, not just its symptoms. Shiloh, a six-year-old Persian cat, had a long history of ill health that included a two-year bout with ear mites that was finally resolved with ear drops, only to be replaced by a three-year battle with generalized ringworm. Then she developed a chronic case of diarrhea that lasted for over a year. By the time she got to Pitcairn, each condition had been treated as a separate problem, with little or no attention paid to the cat's overall condition.Pitcairn's approach was to give special attention to boosting Shiloh's immune system. "The perspective is that it's all one disease from the beginning," he says. "It's simply moved from ears to skin to bowels, being pushed around by different drugs."Certainly the whole-animal approach sounds good in theory. But how can you determine if holistic veterinary care is truly the best medicine for your pet? Kevin Haussler points out that people who believe in alternative health care methods for themselves will often gravitate to such methods for their pets too. But Haussler has also seen things work the other way: "Some owners will have their horses treated chiropractically a long time before they'll ever get adjusted themselves."Once you have made the decision to seek an alternative form of treatment for your pet, finding a veterinarian trained in that particular kind of medicine can be challenging. A good place to start is with the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association's referral list. (Send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to AHVMA, 2214 Old Emmorton Rd., Bel Air MD 21015.) The list indicates which holistic modalities individual veterinarians offer. It's also a good idea to check whether the practitioner you are considering is trained and certified in these areas. A good source of this information is the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society (PO Box 2074, Nederland CO 80466).To check on certification in chiropractic, contact the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association (623 Main, Hillsdale IL 61257). For information on certification in homeopathy write the American Academy of Veterinary Homeopathy (1283 Lincoln St., Eugene OR 97401).Holistic veterinary medicine is covered by pet health insurance through VPI Insurance Group in Anaheim, California. Alberto Valencia, the group's animal claims adjuster, says that their policy covers acupuncture, chiropractic, and homeopathy for pets, although it doesn't cover vitamins and food supplements. Despite the advantages of alternative veterinary care, many pet owners will turn to it only after conventional approaches have failed."Many of the animals I treat are extremely ill when they come to me," says one holistic vet. "And they've usually been elsewhere and worked up at several different places. Many times they have very little life force left." But as more vets begin to offer such treatments as acupressure and massage, herbal remedies and homeopathy, a holistic approach will no longer be seen as a last resort. For Tom Kirshbaum, every time Bubbles trots along with him on a two-mile trek through the woods, he's grateful he took the alternative route for his dog's care--even though he still isn't quite sure what his veterinarian did. "All I know," Kirshbaum says, "is that the allopathic vets tell me, 'Whatever you're doing, keep doing it. It seems to be working." If Bubbles could talk, she would probably agree.